Month: July 2017

Cut me loose, mongoose

The parking reserved for doctors was jammed with sparkly Mercs, BMWs and Audis. There was also a Toyota Corolla. Probably belonged to one of them Cuban doctors who come over here and take all our jobs. And our women. Bloody Cubans.

I had to park a fair distance from the entrance. Hospitals are designed that way deliberately. The longer your walk, the more exercise you get. And they don’t even charge you for it. The medical profession is full of good and kind people with nothing but your best interests at heart.

Speaking of which, mine was pounding savagely by the time I reached the sliding doors. Not from the 50m walk, as you might expect, but out of frustration from waiting for my 78-year-old father to catch up.

When we got out of the car, he kept dropping his walking stick. “What’s happening,” I said. “You got dropsy?” He gave me the lazy eye. “Actually, yes,” he said. Turns out that dropsy is the old-time name for oedema, an accumulation of fluid in the tissue. In his case, the legs. I like to think I laughed out of nervous tension and not because there’s something wrong with me.

The bottoms of his jeans are constantly damp. He drinks a glass of water and it comes out of his calves. That’s pretty hilarious when you think about it. But it gets better. His legs only leak because mongooses keep scratching him. For the last couple of years, a Durban North posse has been coming around for two meals a day. They get fish, peanuts, bananas and home-baked bread. They eat better than I do.

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They don’t sit on the veranda table waiting politely to be fed, like the monkeys do, but stampede into the house – up to thirty at a time – looking for my father. In the kitchen, they gather around his feet squeaking and squabbling like a furry invasion force armed with tiny teeth and insatiable appetites. If he goes to sit down, they swarm all over him. Anyone’s legs would leak if they were set upon by rampaging hordes of carnivorous mammals using their claws as crampons.

I have never wanted to be a doctor. Sick people get on my nerves. I want to slap them and tell them it’s all in their head. This only really works for mental patients, though. Obviously I’m excluding myself, here. When I’m sick, I expect teams of attractive brow-moppers and solicitous murmurers working in shifts to attend to me. This is unlikely to happen and I have consequently given my body strict instructions to not fall seriously ill until I have found someone who is prepared to love me in sickness and in health without insisting on invoking the vows that inevitably sabotage the chances of it ever happening.

“Hurry up, you old bastard,” I said, as my father shuffled towards the entrance. He smiled through his beard. It might have been gas. “Old bastard” was a term of endearment used by my mother who died nearly five years ago. They were married for 55 years. I doubt she meant it as a term of endearment.

The day before, he had an appointment with the anaesthetist – or what might have been the anaesthetist’s assistant. Her report, emailed to my father later that day and copied to the relevant doctors, described him as “a pleasant gentleman, emaciated and unkempt”.

My mother would’ve disagreed with the pleasant part and I disagreed with the emaciated bit, but I was baffled by the unkempt remark. I thought he looked pretty smart, even if he did smell faintly of monkey poo. Was there perhaps something in the medical handbooks that dealt with matters of a sartorial nature?

Of course he looked dishevelled. An hour earlier, he’d been covered in mongooses. Sure, he cuts his own hair and hasn’t brushed it in 25 years, but Einstein’s hair was also a hot mess.

The old bastard has been a structural engineer for nearly half a century. He has built bridges, buildings and hospitals across KwaZulu-Natal. He can quote Shakespeare, understands the ancient Greeks and knows his way around thermals when strapped into a glider. Unkempt, my ass.

So through the sliding doors we went. He mumbled something about crossing the threshold from free will to destiny but I was having none of that nonsense and told him to pick up the pace. We had to get to the cafeteria before it filled up with people coming to visit the doomed. He’s a vegetarian and the menu was limited. I told him to start eating meat because time was against us. Well, not so much me. Although we never can be sure. But if I was going to have a heart attack, I couldn’t have chosen a better spot to have it in.

My sister was with us. She’s done a lot to keep him company and look after him, but then she knocked over her cappuccino and instantly we were back to nine years old, shouting at each other and interrupting my father who was telling us how he had calculated the cost of the operation against his projected time left to live and had wrestled with the decision to … we didn’t understand what he was talking about. Neither of us inherited his maths brain, my feet were soaked in coffee and my sister had somehow found a way to blame me for the spillage.

Then he was called to give blood, and by blood I mean money. For the next half an hour, he filled out forms and handed over his credit card. The cost of the hospital stay alone was horrendous. But not as horrendous as his decision, a few months earlier, to cancel his medical aid because they had increased the premium by what he deemed an unacceptable amount. My father doesn’t like to feel ripped off. It’s one of the reasons he interacts only with monkeys and mongooses.

Off to the surgical ward, then. Five beds to a room. It was like a backpackers for sick people. Truth is, only sick people would charge those prices in the first place. How about we treat the greed disease first? Oh, look. I’ve just stumbled upon the cure for the world. And moving on.

A woman arrived, wheeling something that looked like hand luggage. She assembled it and began probing his heart beat with some kind of wand. It was like an ultrasound. Nobody should have to see and hear their father’s heart beating on a screen. Or even see their father with his shirt off. It was all deeply unnatural and I had to turn away. I used those precious few moments to check if anyone in the hospital was on Tinder. They weren’t.

I wonder what the surgeons are thinking tonight. There will be two of them. One is removing a kidney, one will be doing something unspeakable with the intestines. I have no idea if they’ll be doing it simultaneously or taking turns to stab and slice. At the cafeteria, I thought of offering one of my kidneys. When the bill arrived, I took care of it. Dad was so grateful that I decided not to mention the kidney.

I’d be very worried if I were a surgeon with someone’s life in my hands tomorrow. I doubt I’d be able to sleep. I would toss and turn and eventually pass out just before dawn and then a hadeda would wake me up and I’d get to the hospital still a bit drunk and embarrass myself by accidentally lopping off a perfectly healthy lung. It happens.

The old curmudgeon fed and watered me for eighteen years and bailed me out more than once, in every sense. I hope he wakes up.

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Home, James, and don’t spare the wotsits

Thirty hours and three flights later, I’m back from Bali. It was 29 degrees when I left Denpasar Airport wearing what I’d worn for a month – baggies, t-shirt and slops. It was four degrees the morning I landed in Johannesburg. In between, I had spent 12 hours in Singapore’s Changi Airport, which was like being in a mall the size of a small hyper-elitist city – a city where it’s easier to find a diamond tiara than a beer.

Dozens of high-end shops, scattered among fern-fringed lakes filled with gold-plated koi bigger than bull sharks, were offering permanent buy-two-get-one-free specials. Since my bag was already full, I could only buy stuff that I could carry in my tummy. After walking for days, I came across an Irish pub in which no proper Irishman would ever set foot. I told the waitress, an Indian woman, that I was extremely interested in their three-for-the-price-of-two specials and ordered a Tiger draught. The menu said it was 19 Singapore wotsits. Idly, I googled the exchange rate. The lager I was quaffing with such cavalier disregard was costing me R180. I choked, beer spurting from my nose. I quickly put my head down, licked it off the table and called for the bill.

The waitress brought it over. I was being charged 38 wotsits, seemingly on the assumption that I was emotionally invested in the special. Apparently in Singapore a man’s word is his bond. Not in South Africa, mate. I told the waitress in no uncertain terms that all deals were off. She pointed at the bill and wobbled her head. Durban Indians don’t do that head wobbling thing, but I understand it can mean a lot of things. For me, it meant I had to get out of there as quickly as possible. You don’t get to be the third richest country in the world by allowing feral foreigners to renege on verbal agreements. Wobbling a lot more than my head, I left 20 wotsits on the table and fled.

You know how crazy people say that when you die your soul goes somewhere to be judged and then you’re sent off to heaven or hell? Airports are like that place. Nobody is inside an airport because they want to be there. You’re only there so you can be somewhere else. Free will ends where the travelator begins. Once you’ve shown your boarding pass to the human equivalent of Cerberus and passed through the gates of aviation hell, there’s only one way out. You bought the ticket, you take the ride. There’s very little difference between being trapped in purgatory and trapped in transit.

Crushed together in a confined space with restricted freedom of movement and knowing we will never see each other again, we descend to the level of ravening beasts. Common decency and social graces quickly fall away. Filthy hands are deployed to stuff toxic airport food into snarling mouths. The strong elbow the weak aside in stampedes for the toilet. The fat and the furious sprawl selfishly across seats. With every fresh opportunity for free wifi, happy loving couples set about ignoring one another with grim determination for hours at a time.

And beneath it all, bubbling like a terrible boil constantly threatening to break the surface, we are all aware that in a very short space of time we could be hanging upside down in our seat with seconds left to live. That’s why I always ask for an emergency exit. If I’m going to die, I want to be able to put my seat back and stretch my legs out.

Airports also do something truly dreadful to children. Upon realising that their parents are slack-jawed and speechless with indifference, the sugared-up urchins waste no time mutating into ungovernable savages. It’s Lord of the Flyers wherever you look.

There was one in particular I had my eye on. It was shrieking in that incomprehensible tongue only toddlers can understand and appeared to be under the impression that it could run through solid objects. The yammering gibberish was interspersed with yowling and yelping and nobody but me seemed to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Some poor bastard is going to be sitting next to that, I thought. Yep. I was that poor bastard. Well, it was across the aisle from me, but still close enough to put me at risk of cardiac arrest or a homicide charge.

The insufferable troglodyte wept and wailed for ten minutes before we had even taken off. Then I heard a woman behind me say, “For God’s sake, stick something in its mouth!” I mentioned drugs but the mother’s attention was already locked on to the interloper in 45C. A strange woman telling a mother what to do with her child? That’s a declaration of war. There was a sudden outbreak of “don’t push my buttons, lady” and “last time I checked, you didn’t own the plane” and “you’re messing with the wrong lady, lady”.

I imagined that very soon a fight would break out and everyone on the plane would kill each other. The only survivors would be me and the brat, and I’d have to adopt it. The mother grabbed the mewling whelp from its bumbling father and stuck a nipple in its mouth. In an instant, the enfant terrible passed out. I wouldn’t have minded a hit of that myself.

As it was I had nothing to drink. I hadn’t even been able to successfully sneak a bottle of water onto the plane. How the hell did the Guptas manage to smuggle R40-billion out of the country without anyone but the president, the intelligence services and half the cabinet knowing about it?

The staff I encountered at OR Tambo International were friendly and cheerful. “Welcome home, sir,” said the immigration official, stamping my passport with a big smile. “Go right through,” said the customs guy, giving me a slap on the back. Ha ha. Yeah, right. Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Bali any more. I’m going to have to get used to being in the land of the surly and home of the sullen all over again.

On my 8am connecting flight to Durban, everyone was dressed for business meetings. I was dressed for the beach, hadn’t slept in 24 hours or shaved in two weeks. Nobody made eye contact with me. I asked for a Bloody Mary but was told that this was breakfast time. I pointed out that it was lunchtime in my brain – obviously referring to the fact that my brain was still running on Indonesian time – but she wasn’t to know this and simply thought there was something wrong with me. Which there is, but it’s not what she thinks it is.

Skimming the papers during the flight, I knew I was well and truly home when I read this, “Professor Zulu told the (Moerane) commission that if politicians, especially at councillor level, had to be qualified to take up their posts, murdering for positions would be greatly eliminated.”

Viva.